Who killed Jesus

A Christian Perspective

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Who killed Jesus
Kerr Street Cafe
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About the Author

Rev. Canon Dr. Alan L. Hayes

Rev. Canon Dr. Alan L. Hayes

Alan Hayes has taught church history at University of Toronto's Wycliffe College since 1975, when he completed his Ph.D. in religious studies at McGill University, Montreal. He lives with his wife, Reverend Morar Murray-Hayes in Oakville, Ontario.

Every year on Good Friday, Christians hear the story of the death of Jesus. During the Middle Ages, it was common for the reading of this story to rile up Christians against Jews, whom they held responsible for Jesus’ death. In many European cities you could expect a mob to form, and storm the Jewish ghetto for a pogrom. So the annual horror of good Friday was that a day of remembrance that was designed to connect people with God’s infinite love made people blow up with hate.

This was so profoundly sad, and so avoidable, because “the Jews” weren’t responsible for Jesus’ death at all.

The New Testament is written in Greek, and “Ioudaioi,” the Greek word that’s used for “Jews”, which is Ioudaioi, is also exactly the same word that’s used for “Judaeans.”

The version of the story that was used on Good Friday in the Middle Ages, and is still commonly used today, is the one from the gospel of John. Let’s look at that carefully.

There are issues of translation. The New Testament is written in Greek, and “Ioudaioi,” the Greek word that’s used for “Jews”, which is Ioudaioi, is also exactly the same word that’s used for “Judaeans,” that is, for residents of the Roman province of Judaea, where Jerusalem was located. So translators have to decide which meaning is intended. Today, scholars often choose the translation “Judaeans” in places where the bibles used by lay Christians choose “Jews.”

Even when the translation really should be “Jews,” what does that mean? Sometimes it means “the Jewish authorities,” as in John 7, where we read about Jews who were afraid to speak publicly about Jesus “for fear of the Jews”. Of course it wouldn’t make sense in this context to say that Jews were afraid of themselves; they were afraid of the authorities. It’s a little as if we were to talk about a decision made by Ottawa, which doesn’t mean the whole population of Ottawa, but certain governmental authorities.

If the translation isn’t careful, and sometimes even if it is, it’s easy to misinterpret the text. When we read the gospel of John carefully and without preconception, it’s clear that the people who press for the execution of Christ are a little group around the high priest, and their bodyguard.

The High Priests held their appointment from Rome, not from the Jewish people, and they were instruments of the Roman Empire.

What do we know about these high priests? They were the local authorities who, according to a Jewish historian of the time, Josephus, had “dominion over the nation.” The Roman governor’s only real job was to make sure that taxes were collected and that rebellions were quashed, but otherwise he left everything to the high priests. They held their appointment from Rome, not from the Jewish people, and they were instruments of the Roman Empire. Their most important job was to contain the forces of Jewish nationalism, which wanted independence from Rome. So the high priests set their face against the aspirations of the Jewish people. In fact, when the great Jewish revolt finally did come in 66, one of the first things the rebels did was to assassinate the high priest.

Herodian Columns

Herodian Columns; Photo credit: Derek N Winterburn / Foter / CC BY-ND

A few weeks ago I was in Jerusalem, and walked through the archaeological excavations in what’s called the Herodian Quarter. You can see the foundations of the elegant houses that were built in the time of King Herod. And we can tell that these were the houses of the chief priests, because they had numerous ritual baths. The houses were huge, with balconies overlooking the Temple. And they were elegantly designed in the best Roman fashion of the day: the floors were covered in beautiful mosaic; the walls were elegantly frescoed; imported wine jugs were found along with expensive beautiful plates. They were a totally different class from the ordinary priests, who lived in poverty. The chief priests didn’t live like ordinary Jews at all; they lived like the Roman elite that they were. In fact, the rest of Jerusalem thought they hardly qualified as real Jews at all. The Talmud includes a curse on them: “Woe to the house of Annas! Woe to their serpentlike hisses!”

In the gospel of John the chief priests are the high priest and a very tiny set of his closest oligarchical associates. And they are the ones who move Jesus to his death. It’s their soldiers who arrest Jesus. It’s the chief priest’s slave who apparently leads the soldiers. It’s the former high priest, Annas, the éminence grise of Jerusalem, who interrogates Jesus at length. (Annas is sometimes called the high priest himself, just as we might talk about President Clinton, even though he’s no longer actually the president.) It’s Annas’ son-in-law, the current high priest, Caiaphas, who receives him next.

It’s this little group who, with their bodyguard, decide in the middle of the night to get rid of Jesus. The text doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s a clear inference from the fact that their next step is to take Jesus to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and there’s only one reason they could have had to do that: Pilate had the authority to order an execution. All other authority was already in the hands of this little group. Pilate talks to Jesus, then in John 18:38 goes out to talk to “the Jews”. But it’s clear from the text that here the term “the Jews” means the little group of chief priests and their bodyguards, since these are the only Jews anywhere around.

And a crucial verse to notice is John 19:6. In the movies, Pilate brings Jesus before a huge crowd, who shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” But in the text, there’s no crowd. There’s only this tiny little group of chief priests and their body guards, and the text is absolutely clear that these are the only people shouting “Crucify him!”

The gospel of John is also clear that it’s Jesus, not the high priests, who are in solidarity with the Jewish people. A few days earlier, ordinary people in Jerusalem had welcomed Jesus into the city, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” Don’t let anyone tell you that these crowds turned against Jesus a few days later; remember, there was no crowd on Good Friday, according to the gospel of John. When people got up the next morning, Jesus was already crucified.

So if we read the gospel of John carelessly, it looks as if Jesus has annoyed “the Jews” and they get the Roman governor to kill him. If we read the gospel of John more carefully, it’s pretty much the opposite. The Jewish population doesn’t want to kill Jesus at all; he represents their hopes. (Maybe they misunderstand his actual mission, but Christians have often misunderstood as well.) It’s the local privileged power elite which is alienated from the Jewish people at large, and is an instrument of Roman imperial tyranny, which plots in the middle of the night to get rid of Jesus, not because they didn’t like his theology, and certainly not because he was a threat to Judaism, but because he represented a Jewish consciousness that jeopardized their own privileged position.

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